Behavioural referrals

Learn when it's appropriate to refer a dog with a problematic behaviour to an accredited behaviourist.

Staffie dog lying on play equipment outdoors

Problematic behaviours are any behaviours that the owner perceives as being a problem.

Therefore, the behaviour the owner is concerned about might be normal canine behaviour, but expressed in a way, or in a situation, that is problematic. For example, jumping up and mouthing at hands might be part of a normal puppy play session for some owners.

However, for a family with small children and a large dog, this behaviour might be perceived as problematic. 

There are also some problematic behaviours which are linked to underlying canine wellbeing, with emotions such as fear and anxiety causing the dog to behave in a way that is problematic.

For example, a dog that is noise-phobic might run off if there is a loud noise whilst out on a walk. It is therefore likely that within the veterinary clinic you will be presented with a wide range of canine problematic behaviours.

When to refer

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) states that referral should be considered when the case or treatment option is outside their area of competence. For a behaviour case, this could be when:

  • there is no obvious medical cause for the presenting behaviour problem (for example, pain from arthritis) and/or
  • there is a concern that the presenting behaviour problem could result in injury to the owner or to the public (for example escalation of a problem resulting in biting) and/or
  • the presenting behaviour problem is complex and/or
  • the presenting problem will require long-term training or behavioural management.

The veterinary surgeon should also make a referral appropriate to the case. This will involve considering all of the relevant factors such as: 

  • the ability and experience of the referral veterinary surgeon
  • the location of the service
  • the urgency of treatment
  • the circumstances of the owner, including the availability and any limitations of insurance.

Who to refer to?

Taking a canine behavioural history and performing a thorough clinical examination (see our framework for behavioural consultation article) should provide you with a detailed understanding of the problematic behaviour and help you to confirm that there is no underlying medical cause for the behaviour.

At this point, using the information gained from the history and clinical examination, you can decide whether directing the owner to a dog trainer, or referral to a clinical animal behaviourist, is required. 

Dog trainers

Dog trainers teach owners how to train their dogs many useful skills, such as:

  • walking nicely on lead
  • not jumping up on people
  • not begging for food
  • settling down quietly when needed. 

We recommend using rewards so it’s always enjoyable and dogs are motivated to engage in learning. Reward-based training methods have also been found to promote positive dog-owner relationships. 

Many dog trainers specialise in different activities, such as agility, obedience, trick-training, and finding missing items or people, whether for competition or just for fun.

These activities can also provide a positive outlet for dogs who will also enjoy using their bodies, brains, and learning with their owners. 

Where to find a dog trainer

Dogs Trust’s Dog School has fun, educational classes that deliver high-quality, welfare-friendly dog training nationwide.

Our knowledgeable coaches offer short courses for puppies, adolescents, rescue dogs and adults, teaching valuable skills that enable dogs and owners to live together happily.

These include walking nicely on lead, coming back when called, settling at quiet times, being polite around people and food, and being handled. Find your nearest dog school.

The CCAB Certification Ltd and The Animal Behaviour and Training Council are regulatory bodies that represents and maintains registers of animal trainers, clinical animal behaviourists (CCAB/CAB) and veterinary behaviourists (veterinary surgeons with an interest in behaviour) fulfilling accreditation criteria and belonging to approved member associations.

Dog behaviourists

Dog behaviourists specialise in emotional problems such as when dogs feel anxious, frightened, or frustrated. Such feelings can result in dangerous behaviour, for example chasing traffic, panicking about noises or when alone or behaving aggressively.

Training alone is unlikely to change things because as well as learning to behave differently, the dog also needs to learn to feel differently.

Behaviourists identify what’s causing the worrying behaviour, and then create tailor-made plans for owners to change the way dogs feel and behave for the better.

Dog School

Expert advice and practical training to help you and your pooch understand each other better. We offer 4 week courses specifically catered to puppies, adolescents or adult dogs.

Referring to a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB/CCAB) or Veterinary Behaviourist

It is important that whilst you are arranging a behavioural referral, you have provided the owner with information regarding how to make the situation safe and ways to prevent the problematic behaviour from escalating. Information regarding these points is discussed within the behavioural first aid section.

Where to find a Clinical Animal Behaviourist

Anybody may call themselves a behaviourist, even without qualifications or experience. So it’s worth checking what your behaviourist’s qualifications mean – as well as the types of methods they use. Inappropriate or outdated advice might make matters worse. 

  • The CCAB Certification Ltd and The Animal Behaviour and Training Council are regulatory bodies that represents and maintains registers of animal trainers, clinical animal behaviourists (CAB) and veterinary behaviourists (veterinary surgeons with an interest in behaviour) fulfilling accreditation criteria and belonging to approved member associations.

Behaviourists registered with these organisations at the level of Certified or Clinical Animal Behaviourist will hold an approved qualification at degree level or higher. They will also have undertaken an extensive period of supervised training in order to build up a portfolio of casework.

Veterinary surgeons can also go through the ABTC and CCAB accreditation and may do post-graduate qualifications such as RCVS Advanced Practitioner in Companion Animal Behaviour or a residency with the European College of Animal Welfare and Behaviour Medicine. The RCVS maintains lists of both Advanced Practitioners in Companion Animal Behaviour, and Specialists in Behavioural Medicine.

Both CAB/ CCAB and veterinary behaviourists will only see behaviour cases that have been referred to them by a veterinary surgeon, ensuring that any underlying illness, injury, or pain is being treated in conjunction with their behavioural support.  

What happens after your referral?

Using the ABTC and CCAB websites, it is easy to find a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB/CCAB) or a veterinary behaviourist that is near to your practice location. It is likely that your chosen behaviourist will then require you to fill in a referral form.

This will require the client’s details, so it is important to get consent for this to be given in advance. The form may also ask for a summary of the problematic behaviour alongside any relevant medical history. 

Once the referral has been set up and taken place, you, the referring veterinary surgeon, will be informed of the outcome of the consultation and any advice that was given.

Note that only veterinary surgeons can prescribe medications, so if the CAB/CCAB feels behaviour medication might be beneficial this might be discussed with you.

A veterinary behaviourist is able to prescribe medications as they are a qualified veterinary surgeon. They may do this directly or suggest medication is prescribed by you as the referring veterinary surgeon. 


Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons website:  [Accessed February 2022] 

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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.

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